I have seen several film critics talking about PIXAR’s Soul and how philosophical its message is, and how much of an impact that message had on them. This is great, and I’m pleased that a film could resonate so deeply with so many people, because that is what this medium can do at its best… but it just didn’t hit me like that. Watching the reviews flooding in, it was difficult to not feel like I was somehow watching Soul wrong. Connecting with a film has never been difficult for me, especially when it comes to PIXAR Animation Studios who have a one way road straight to my heart. The message of Soul is that the best way to live life is to go out and live it, instead of worrying that you may never achieve your goals, and that is an important message to convey. I was having trouble comprehending why this wasn’t affecting me as much as I thought it, should and I came to the conclusion that it may have something to do with the film’s ending. To discuss this, I think context is important so I’m about to go through the entire plot which means that if you still have not seen it, this is your last chance to go in completely unspoiled.
The plot follows music teacher Joe Gardener as he finally lands a gig with a popular jazz singer, shortly before he falls through a manhole and dies. Instead of committing to death, Joe (now a soul) manages to fall into The Great Before – where souls are given their traits and their ‘spark’. Having been mistaken for a ‘mentor’ by the Archetypes of this realm (known as Jerrys) Joe is matched with the troublesome Soul 22, and they find themselves falling through a portal to Earth. Whilst 22 ends up in Joe’s body, Joe ends up in the body of a cat and the story follows them as they attempt to return to their rightful places- 22 in The Great Before and Joe in his own body at The Big Gig. Hijinks and heartfelt moments ensue, with 22 developing a spark for life before being thrust back into The Great Before and becoming a Lost Soul, while Joe returns to his body but finds that he still feels empty after his gig. Joe returns to The Great Before, saves 22’s lost soul and embraces his fate. Thus far I have been enjoying the story, which I found to be equally heartwarming and heartbreaking. 22 is seemingly being a better Joe than Joe, which has given her a lust for life that she has been lacking forever. Meanwhile, Joe feels like he has accomplished nothing in life but, in death, has accomplished something that is bigger than himself. It took dying for Joe to realise how he should have lived, but he finally gets to die feeling fulfilled.
And then he doesn’t die.
Joe has accepted his fate and is ready for The Great Beyond, but before that can happen, he is approached by the head Jerry who allows him the chance to return to Earth and keep on living. He accepts this offer, but given the way the film has been portraying its message thus far, I don’t think he should have. I understand that Soul needs a happy ending, and I don’t resent the decision to end the story like this, but I think it would have worked better if Joe had really died. I’m all for happy endings, but sometimes one that is bittersweet can work better. Sometimes we might only become satisfied with life through dying, and (depending on religion) there are no second chances. That really sucks, but that is life so you need to make the most of it while you still can.
There are so many things about Soul that are worth paying attention to and discussing, like how it is the first PIXAR Studios film centring on a Black protagonist and how their culture is represented. It’s also worth noting that Joe’s body spends the majority of its time inhabited by somebody who sounds like a middle aged white woman, but as a white girl, I don’t feel it’s my place to lead those discussions. What I can do is discuss aspects surrounding the release of the film and the ramifications of that.
Soul was release on Christmas Day 2020 directly to the streaming platform Disney+ for free (provided you already pay the monthly subscription fee). This is not the first major film to go to Disney+, with that honour going to the Live Action remake of Mulan several months prior, but it is the first to be ‘free’. Disney had caused quite the controversy when it announced that Mulan would be locked behind a $25 (£18) paywall, because while that was a reasonable price if the platform was being used by a family, it was not so fair on those who were the ‘soul’ proprietors (harhar) of their accounts. For whatever reason, it was decided that Soul would not suffer the same fate and, personally, I think that is a good thing. This along with the Warner Bros streaming service HBO Max announcing it would have same day releasing for the platform and cinemas (much to the chagrin of everybody in the industry) has led to discussions of the viability of this type of release going forward. It’s worth noting that there are pros and cons to on-demand streaming, but the bigger question the industry seems to be taking away from all of this is ‘will it kill cinemas?’. It’s also worth noting that as I publish this, the vaccine for COVID-19 is starting to slowly be rolled out across the globe, and that as a result, cinema trips won’t be a viable option for some time to come. Many are beginning to wonder if, given streaming, cinemas even should re-open as it doesn’t seem to be harming the pockets of big film companies thus far. Personally, I think that the entire conversation is an over-reaction to the current situation and that movie theatres will be just fine. After all, television did not kill the radio.
The one thing that Soul made clear to me was just how well tailored the feature length motion picture is to the big screen. There are so many shots in here that are either a vast expanse of darkness or of light, and I know that those are the kinds of shot that would envelop a cinema crowd. I miss that kind of experience on a level that may be difficult to explain to some people, and I feel that movies like Soul demonstrate why. This film is not perfect. but it really deserved a larger screen.
Until Next Time…